Tall, Dark, and Mysterious


Culling someone else’s herd

File under: Righteous Indignation, Those Who Can't, Queen of Sciences. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 8:33 pm.

The statistics class I teach is an intro course for humanities and social science students. A good half of my students are majoring in mumbleology, which I knew required its students to take statistics - but only today did I learn that it also required them to obtain B’s or better. B’s! I discovered this not from anyone employed by the Department of Mumbleology, but from a student, who came to my office after obtaining a D on the test, and - well, you know the rest. After carefully pleading her case - complete with tears, calls for mercy, the whole family of explanations (difficulties in personal life, hasn’t taken a math class in a decade, test anxiety), and a solemn oath attesting to the vast effort she’d expended on this course - she laid out her request: could she write the test again?

Ugh. Since, you know, beneath this tough exterior, yadda yadda, I hemmed and hawed out my refusal: well, I said, when I see that a student has a test that’s a real outlier (nota bene: stats terminology, indicating relevance of subject), I’ll count the other tests as well as the final exam for more. But, it’s an awful lot of work to set a test, and I have three preps, so I don’t give makeup tests, and besides, if I gave you one I’d have to give everyone one, and -

Oh, no, she said, I wouldn’t ask you to set a makeup test. Just to let me write the same test again.

I’m not going to share what I said in response, other than to mention that there’s a reason Canadians have a reputation for being polite in the face of absurdity. And, no two ways about it, the request to write the same goddamned test again is absurd.

It’s not that I don’t sympathize. I do. It must suck to have your entire future rest upon this one class that no amount of effort will get you through in a single term. And, I hate to be so fatalistic, but for this particular student it’s true: my last test was a hair too easy - the class average was a B (and, this being a stats class - standard deviation was around one letter grade) - and it’s just going to get more difficult from here. Intro stats isn’t rocket science by any stretch, but there’s no way that I can do justice to the required material in such a way that a student - no matter how hardworking - who hasn’t done math in a decade can swing a B, unless said student has some nontrivial, latent mathematical talent that I’d likely be at least vaguely acquainted with by now.

That said, I’m more than a mite peeved at the Department of Mumbleology for outsourcing its heartbreaking duties to us. A B? Required in a course that has no relevance to the student’s major as taught by Island U? And - let’s be honest, here - this is Island U, which isn’t known for being a leader in Mumbleology research. I know what I’m talking about here: I actually have a passing interest in mumbleology, to the point that I was even considering the 101 class this semester until I discovered that it conflicted with my schedule, and some knowledge of statistics is extremely useful in the field. But a substantial portion of my students, mumbleology majors all, are in their third or fourth year, and their later-year courses don’t draw upon statistics at all. When I checked out one of the second-year textbooks in the bookstore, it was filled with rousing expositions of its theories: “A groundbreaking study in 1985 revealed that over 78% of…” began one chapter, with nary a mention of the way the sample was chosen, the distribution of the data, whether the study had ever been replicated - all the stuff covered in Chapter 1 of the course I teach. It was left to the reader to trust that a certain trait and a certain childhood trauma were “strongly correlated”, something I’ll be fleshing out in my class in a few weeks. I could go on. I’m not saying that a mumbleology course should get bogged down in the statistical element of its content - to the contrary - just that there’s a clear overlap between my class and it, and there’s no reason that a class full of students who are required to get A’s or B’s in my class can’t apply their knowledge to a discipline whose integrity rests upon well-conducted and -analyzed studies.

Every college math instructor, I’m sure, can relate: we’re the gatekeepers for departments that either can’t, or won’t, offer courses challeging enough to trim their cohorts as much as they’d like. And they can’t give their students any compelling reasons for requiring such stellar performance in math classes, and that has the tendency to produce a lot of anxious, demanding and bitter students - and stressed but sympathetic teachers. I can tell my students why math is interesting, and why statistics is useful in real life; but the instructors for their majors aren’t reinforcing my lessons, and my students aren’t at school to broaden their horizons - they’re here to get degrees, and, eventually, jobs.

And so, when students come crying to my office asking if they can write the same test again, I’ll gently refuse their request. And I won’t feel guilty.

But I will feel bad.


  1. For once, I am glad that I teach junior high school. We rarely get tears from students, but sometimes we DO get some Irate Parents.

    - EdWonk — 2/8/2005 @ 12:39 am

  2. Despite frustrations like [above], I’m glad I teach college; I’d rather deal with teary students than Irate Parents. Besides, I prefer working with students who have already been socialized, though being 18+ is hardly a guarantee that that’s taken place.

    - Moebius Stripper — 2/8/2005 @ 6:32 am

  3. Frustrating situation. But I was more intrigued by the following statement:

    “there‚Äôs a reason Canadians have a reputation for being polite in the face of absurdity”

    What reason might -that- be (that is particularly Canadian, that is)?

    - Mitch — 2/8/2005 @ 7:32 am

  4. Oh, all I meant is that the reason for the reputation, is because we ARE ridiculously polite, as well as apologetic when we’re the ones who are owed apologies. No idea why.

    - Moebius Stripper — 2/8/2005 @ 8:56 am

  5. For outsiders - what’s Mumbleology?

    It’s a well-known fact down here that statistics is an arcane art so abstruse that only wizards and Oxford wranglers have a hope of understanding it. On the other hand, it can be so delightfully misused that any proposition can be easily proven (as in “groundbreaking study …”)

    Also, down here, the University may not be for “job training”, but try to get a job without a degree. The High School diploma used to be the golden ticket to success, but that has fallen into such disrepute that the college degree has taken its place. And even that is going downhill. Pretty soon we’ll all need PhD’s just to be considered for a part-time job.

    - Mike — 2/8/2005 @ 10:53 am

  6. What’s crazy is that stats are far easier to grasp than algebra or calculus… if you’re not afraid of actually thinking what numbers =mean=. The stats that most people have to do are working with actual, factual numbers as opposed to symbols.

    Anyway, I’m always ticked off because articles always have means but no standard deviations. Give me the std. devs, dammit!

    - meep — 2/8/2005 @ 11:47 am

  7. Mike, Mumbleology is just some social science ending with “ology”, which I opted not to name. Did you read the link I posted? It discusses exactly what you mentioned about the tension between university not being job training, and university degrees being pretty much a prerequisite of virtually all employment. I actually had people tell me I’d never get anywhere without that PhD.

    - Moebius Stripper — 2/8/2005 @ 9:24 pm

  8. Well, I kind of hope that Mumbleology is not Psychology. Because, as a graduate student in a Psychology-related field, I can say that if an undergraduate curriculum is not tying together and integrating basic statistics (and, more generally, data analysis and interpretation) with the true humanities “Psychology” courses then they’re not preparing students very well for graduate school, and graduate school is kind of necessary for many Psychology majors, if they want to become Psychologists. In graduate school, Psychology almost becomes statistics, albeit in a kind of loose, applied way.

    And yet … you say that some fifty percent-ish of your students are Mumbleology majors, and I therefore have a sinking feeling that Mumbleology is indeed Psychology. Gosh, say it ain’t so.

    - wes — 2/9/2005 @ 8:14 am

  9. *cought*cough*sociology*cough*

    that’s my guess. conveniently, since comments are moderatated, I don’t need to worry about commiting a faux pas if MS would rather we didn’t guess.

    - Jen — 2/9/2005 @ 10:28 am

  10. Eh, whatever floats your boat. I ain’t telling.

    - Moebius Stripper — 2/9/2005 @ 11:15 am

  11. Has anyone else ever found that the protestations of “but I put so much effort into your course!!!” have the opposite effect of what was intended? If a student who didn’t show up much and never did the homework is getting middling grades, then I reckon that student is pretty smart (or at least well prepared). My inclination is to flick her/him on the ear for being lazy and give them a passing grade. But when I hear about how they never missed any classes, did every scrap of homework, saw a tutor three times a week, &c, &c, it invariably makes me think, “And you *still* got a 68?! There’s no WAY you belong in the next course.”

    Meaner than I look, I guess.

    - Tarid — 2/11/2005 @ 12:42 pm

  12. Tarid, I wouldn’t say it has the “opposite effect” - but a D student who is working really hard definitely presents more of a challenge than a D student who’s just lazy. As you say, I can just tell the lazy ones to get off their asses and work, whereas I feel so helpless with the ones who are working hard. I can help them to some extent, but so many of them need to build up 5-10 years of background that they need for my course. And I can do only so much in terms of ridding them of their bad mathematical habits, particularly their tendency to look try to solve one problem by trying to remember the identical one from the homework.

    - Moebius Stripper — 2/12/2005 @ 7:19 pm

  13. […] possibly be so bad as to bear any responsibility whatsoever for student of mine - the one who needs a B - writing, by way of interpreting a confidence inte […]

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